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My Dinner with Bill (Gates that is)

by Michael Shermer, Feb 23 2010
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left to right: Jared Cohen, Dave Morin, John Cusack, Dean Kamen, Bill Gates, Arianna Huffington, Michael Shermer. (All photos in this post were taken by John Brockman.)

No, it wasn’t exactly My Dinner with Andre—the classic 1981 filmed conversation between Wallace Shaun and Andre Gregory (directed by Louis Malle) that ranged across a diversity of existential topics—but listening to Bill Gates hold forth on matters of business, economics, finance, world health, education, and nutrition and physical fitness in a dinner arranged by John Brockman’s Edge.org during last week’s TED gathering in Long Beach was a memorable experience nonetheless.

Richard Dawkins once said that John Brockman has the most stellar rolodex in all of science, and periodically Brockman organizes an Edge.org event that brings them all together for some serious dialogue about the great issues of our time. There were around 80 people in all, which soon broke up into small groups of schmoozing and social networking. Check out the roster and accompanying photos.

When it was time to sit down for dinner there was a spot open at the Gates table (we’ll call it), that included some heavyweights such as Facebook’s Dave Morin, the Segway inventor Dean Kamen, the actor John Cusack, Jared Cohen from the U.S. State Department, Michael Tchao, VP of Apple’s new iPad division, Arianna Huffington of HuffingtonPost, Bill Gates, and your humble servant.

This was unlike any dinner I’ve ever attended. Usually no matter how many heavyweight bigshot superstars are present there always seems to be a relatively fluid conversation around the table that unfolds organically as different people make different contributions. Not so here. Bill Gates was the star and we were tiny planets in orbit around him, sitting there like acolytes at the feet of the guru, asking him questions and listening to his lengthy and thoughtful answers. You can see it in the faces of the guests in the second photo, oriented toward Gates who is just off camera to the right, as Gates (in the third photo) offers his thoughts on the various queries put to him. (All photos by John Brockman. See the entire set.)

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left to right: Jared Cohen, Dave Morin, John Cusack, Dean Kamen

Seriously, this was one weird dinner. After spending two hours at this table I can honestly say that I haven’t any idea what the other folks sitting there are like. The actor John Cusack, for example, strikes me as a thoughtful and intelligent man, but I never got to talk to him because there was next to no other conversations. Ditto the others, although Arianna did unlock her Gate-gaze long enough to give me one of her business cards, encouraging me to blog about the dinner at HuffPo (but I’m committed to True/Slant now even though I occasionally hop over to her mostly-liberal site to give them a dose of my libertarian bias).

I knew Bill Gates was smart, but in my estimation after listening to him for two hours is that he is really smart, off-the-charts smart, super bright, even brilliant. He is obviously well-read on those matters important to him, and he seems to have a steel-trap memory for regurgitating what he has read in great detail. Discussing world health and nutrition led me to ask him about diets and health and what he does personally, to which he answered that he runs 90 minutes a day on a treadmill. Since I do a fair amount of exercise myself (cycling is my poison) I asked him if he listens to audio books, which he said he does but is especially keen on listening to Teaching Company courses while working out, most especially the economics courses taught by Professor Timothy Taylor. Since I have taken all of these courses myself (you can download them into an iPhone and listen to them while driving, cycling, running, hiking, etc.), it was interesting to listen to Gates reiterate what was in them in the course of the evening as we asked him questions about the economy. I could tell that he could call forth from memory intricate details from those courses but in a completely different context in answer to a separate question.

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Bill Gates and Arianna Huffington

I asked Gates “Isn’t it a myth that some companies are ‘too big to fail’? What would have happened if the government just let AIG and the others collapse.” Gates’ answer: “Apocalypse.” He then expanded on that, explaining that after talking to his “good friend Warren” (Buffet), he came to the conclusion that the consequences down the line of not bailing out these giant banks would have left the entire world economy in tatters.

Arianna Huffington asked Gates about Obama’s various jobs programs to stimulate the economy. Gates answered: “Let me tell you about what leads companies to create more jobs: demand for their products. My friend Warren owns the world’s largest carpet manufacturing company. Their business has dried up because the demand for carpets has declined dramatically due to the drop off in the construction of new homes and office buildings. If you want to create more jobs you need to create more demand for products that the jobs are created to fulfill. You can’t just make up jobs without a real demand for them.” I believe that was the last thing Arianna said for the evening.

This led me to ask Gates this: “If the market is so good at determining jobs and wages and prices, why not let the market determine the price of money? Why do we need the Fed?” Gates responded: “You sound like Ron Paul! We need the Fed to steer the economy away from extremes of inflation and deflation.” He then schooled us with a mini-lecture on the history of economics (again, probably gleaned from Timothy Taylor’s marvelous course for the Teaching Company on the economy history of the United States) to demonstrate what happens when fluctuations in the price of money (interest rates, etc) swing too wildly. I believe that was the last question I asked Gates for the evening! What do I know? I run a tiny nonprofit science education organization with six employees. I’m just hoping to be able to cover my daughter’s college tuition next year. Gates is the world’s richest man who founded a giant multi-national corporation and heads a powerful nonprofit organization that is trying to save the third world. He surely understands economics and business and finance better than I do, right? I sure hope so!

Anyway, thanks to Edge.org for a splendid evening that resulted in a handful of people getting schooled in finance by the smartest guy in the room. Let’s hope he’s right about the bailout and that the economic apocalypse is behind us.

Recommended Reading

87 Responses to “My Dinner with Bill (Gates that is)”

  1. Brian S says:

    What an opportunity! Very interesting stuff and excellent review!

  2. Robo Sapien says:

    I would have asked him if he cuts his hair with a Flowbee.

  3. Sounds like a fascinating evening. I don’t think I could have resisted asking Gates what he thinks, as he tries to vaccinate the third world, about the anti-vaccine propaganda of the news outlet of the woman sitting to his left.

    • CW says:

      I was thinking the same thing. I’m guessing she would have responded in a similar way, to when Bill Gates replied to her jobs question – by remaining silent?

    • Jim Shaver says:

      Right on, Steve! Even if you asked that question in as nonconfrontational a manner as possible, maybe hearing a no-nonsense explanation from such a smart and respected man would sow some seeds of doubt in Ms. Huffington. Maybe.

  4. Thomas says:

    I’m glad there wasn’t a spot at that table wasted on me. I would have been yapping in John Cusak’s ear all night about how awesome,”Better of Dead” was.

  5. JPCaetano says:

    These dinners should be filmed, with a rotating camera sticking out of the centre of the table.
    Thanks for sharing a tiny bit of that evening with us, Mr.Shermer!

  6. Vince says:

    RE: Jobs programs.

    If the federal government temporarily goes in to debt (runs a deficit) in order to stop local government jobs from being cut does it a) reduce demand somehow or b) by keeping the number of people with an income higher increase or at least stabilize demand?

    If the government temporarily goes in to debt (runs a deficit) in order to build infrastructure, and companies have to hire people to do the work does it a) reduce demand somehow or b) by keeping the number of people with an income higher increase or at least stabilize demand?

    It seems odd to me that anyone would imply that what Gates said about that somehow refuted the idea of jobs programs or government stimulus. It actually seems to support it. Assuming one actually understands what the programs are intended to do. Maybe that is the problem.

    • MadScientist says:

      So, I may not be the only one who finds Bill Gates’ answer to Huffington to be vacuous side-stepping? I didn’t think people could be called ‘brilliant’ for stating the obvious – that demand for a product creates a demand for more jobs in that area. As for ‘stimulus spending’, the results depend a lot on how the government spends. In Australia the government handed money out to most people to buy their votes at the next election; Juan Peron comes to mind. Spending on infrastructure is a good thing if it will lead to genuine progress – let’s say improving access etc to a smaller town so that they can provide competitive services and attract more people. Infrastructure spending is a very bad thing if it’s only creating busy-work such as doing a half-ass job of resurfacing roads so that the job can be started over again as soon as it’s done.

      • TryUsingLogic says:

        I think people should be called ‘brilliant’ for recognizing the obvious.

        Good article…..

      • JGB says:

        T.U.L. – I agree with one small caveat: Brilliance is recognizing the obvious WHICH IS GERMAINE.

        Also, we don’t know that Bill Gates would disagree with the points Vince brought up. It is true that Gov’t jobs programs don’t necessarily improve the economy (just as physical activity doesn’t always improve one’s health – look at the life expectancy of NFL players!).

        OTOH: some government sponsored projects transform our economy by creating new areas for economic growth (e.g. DARPAnet which evolved into the internet). The explosion of development in a new economic arena can lift the whole economy.

      • TryUsingLogic says:

        OTOH: The key in your comment is “some”….Social spending programs and other poorly managed government programs are a drag on prosperity, which improves all lives. Government thrives on taxes from the profits of innovation and we have plenty of history to show government hand outs and mismanagement do not stabalize the economy!

        What word would you use to define the fact that Obama does not get the “obvious” on enormous defict spending? Naive? Surely, not…”brilliant?”

  7. Chris Howard says:

    “Let me tell you about what leads companies to create more jobs: demand for their products…” Let me tell you what leads me to buy thier products, a job that provides me with a living wage. Seriously, that’s the best Bill Gates could do? The cold, hard fact is that since the 50’s corporations have paid less taxes, which shifted the tax burden to citizens, and since a large portion of the U.S. population lives paycheck to paycheck, barely able to afford all their necessary expenses, much less have anything left over for savings, we can’t buy anything anything more, Bill. But then again, this is the man who mastered the art of hiring “perma-temps.” while inflating his own salary to pathetic, and obscene levels… go figure.

    • Miko says:

      Corporations pay no taxes. They shift profits back into capital improvements (often leading to lower-skilled workers being laid off) and they adjust prices to shift taxes on to consumers. Taxing a corporation is just a sneaky way of taxing workers and consumers without their knowledge. Naturally, the way this tax falls on citizens is extremely regressive too. The fact that some leftists support it just suggests that they need more economics education. (The fact that most rightists support it just proves that they’re evil.)

      Also, if we were to pay you the living wage without the job, you’d be equally able to buy products, so if your analysis is correct, having the job is actually entirely irrelevant to the process. Of course, in reality, if we had the government give everyone a living wage without having any jobs, we’d quickly find that the money was worthless as there would be nothing to buy with it. And being paid for a job where you produce nothing of value is exactly equivalent to being paid for not having a job. How do we determine whether your job is producing value or not? Well, we look at whether people are willing to buy the products you produce. Which takes us back to Gates’ position that the only way to create sustainable jobs is to create demand for products. (Not that I favor creating jobs, of course. I’d much rather see a system in which most people work for themselves.)

      • vince says:

        It’s funny how someone like Miko claims that someone that doesn’t see his way, needs more “economics education”. I’m not claiming I don’t. Corporations are able to make money in our society. They should pay their share. Their taxes pay for infrastucture that people need. Look at the USA now. Less corporate taxes is leading to a shrinking middle class and infrastructure that is collapsing. If a corporation pays tax they still shfit profits to capital improvement. The problem for society is corporations don’t want to pay any tax and they’ll take any hand outs thy can get. Also, no amount of profit is enough for them (listening libertarians?).Is life better in the USA now than when corporate tax was higher? Finally look at socialist countries. Higher tax, good infrastucure, high standard of living and by all metrics( e.g. WHO, UN) some of the most desirable places to live. The US, not so much.

      • Vince, do you say that with Spain on your mind? Unemployment has skyrocketed to 20%.

  8. Brian M says:

    I would have stolen food off his plate. Being a total nuisance is fun. :)

    Mind you, if I was really in a room where Dean Kamen was being overshadowed, I would probably be in awe too. If I was in a room where Arianna Huffington was being overshadowed, I wouldn’t be surprised.

  9. Ebenezer Clipperlock says:

    While I’m sure you enjoyed your evening, this has nothing whatsoever to do with skepticism.

  10. Miko says:

    “Gates is the world’s richest man who founded a giant multi-national corporation … He surely understands economics and business and finance better than I do, right?”

    No. His corporation makes its profits through a government-granted monopoly (N.B. I’m not talking about the fake monopoly that was the issue of the anti-trust case a few years back; as a Linux user, I’m living proof that that monopoly doesn’t really exist) and threats from lawyers. If we had a free market, he’d probably go bankrupt. His business success suggests that he understands politics, but doesn’t really speak to his understanding of economics.

    • Kurt says:

      I concur. Shermer, your logic here is really awful. Gates said that bailouts are bad not because Taylor said so (although he might), but because Warren Buffet said so.

      Unfortunately, asking a bunch of rich guys how bad it would be if a lot of them suddenly weren’t rich isn’t an objective test of whether bailouts are a good idea. Of course they’re going to think it’s Armageddon.

      Free markets get corrupted by politics because the “captains of industry” have a bad habit of thinking they’re not just the captain, they’re the ship as well. Really, they’re not that important. If Bill Gates got hit by a bus tomorrow, there would still be Windows products for years to come. Even if Microsoft went bankrupt, all of the capital goods and human ingenuity bound up in that company would still be around ready to be employed in entirely new ways. Losing a captain is a setback, but the ship sails on.

      • tmac57 says:

        Keep in mind that as rich as these guys are, they are also two of the biggest philanthropists in history, doing real good in the world in a strategic and efficient way.
        I have a feeling that if they lost all of their wealth tomorrow, the day after that they would be on their way to rebuilding their companies, and never lose a nights sleep over it.

      • MadScientist says:

        Whoa … no, Gates actually implied that the bailout was a good thing. “Apocalypse” and all that being avoided. As for Obama’s stimulus program, he dodged the question by saying demand for a product creates jobs – well DUH. But where are my manners? Oh Hail the world’s richest man!

  11. Robo Sapien says:

    So if you’re not talking about the anti-trust case, then what are you talking about, exactly? You’re implying that Gates didn’t earn his fortune, but got a free ride to mega-success courtesy of Uncle Sam.

    Last I checked, Bill Gates started out as a nobody in college and ended up among the richest men on the planet, and successfully put his product on nearly every PC in the world. The first Windows was created before there was a market for PC’s, but he had the vision to see what was coming and dominate the field before the competition even realized there was a market. Now, what about those accomplishments doesn’t require a good understanding of economics?

    • Kurt says:

      None of them. Being an expert in economics is not the same skill as entrepreneurial ability.

      Also, I’m pretty sure Miko was referring specifically to IP laws. Software companies on the scale of Microsoft would simply be impossible without them. Software itself, however, would still be quite possible — as open-source demonstrates.

    • Michael says:

      Robo, don’t try to bring facts and logic into this. Let the creation–err, I mean libertarians keep denying reality to hold onto their faith in the free market to solve all the world’s problems.

      If Gates disagrees with them, it must be because he’s on the payroll of Big Government like all critics of anti-vaccinationists are shills for Big Pharma. Facts and evidence be damned.

      Why should it matter that Gates’ understanding of economics is very, very demonstrable.

    • wallclimber says:

      Robo Sapien, Bill Gates may have been a “nobody” once, in that his name wasn’t known by many people. However, he was already a rich, privileged young man, with rich and powerful parents. Not exactly a rags to riches situation there.

      There’s no arguing that he may have had vision, but there is considerable doubt that he’s ever had ethics. Also, he may have, as you say, had a good understanding of economics, but Microsoft’s strong point is, and has always been marketing/PR, and since the anti-trust they’ve excelled at lobbying. Microsoft’s products, on the other hand are not so good…which is why those products require millions and millions of dollars to market.

      Bill Gates is an interesting man, but not one that I respect.

    • Oswald Spengler says:

      >> Bill Gates started out as a nobody in college … <> The first Windows was created before there was a market for PC’s. <> … but he had the vision to see … <<

      … that the way to "dominate the field" was to betray his business partners, IBM among others, and to steal ideas from others, DEC for example.

  12. STrimmer says:

    You missed your opportunity! You sat next to Arianna Huffington and didn’t call her out on the absolute medical nonsense that is written about on the Huffington Post. Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy and the other anti-vaxxers use it as a way to promote their dangerous nonsense while they also have homeopaths and other quacks. You have her card now, call her, and if you can write on the HuffPo more to counter act the medical crazy.

  13. Max says:

    Dean Kamen could offer Michael Tchao some advice about “the IT”.

  14. Jaime says:

    Once again…how is this related to skepticism? It sounds like a fun night, but why is this posted on SkepticBlog? I read this site for skepticism related news…not yours or Bill Gates’ personal opinions on the economy. You really need to get a WordPress blog or something.

  15. Beelzebud says:

    Congratulations on having dinner with powerful rich people. I’m not sure what this has to do with skepticism, but at least you didn’t launch in to more libertarian proselytizing.

  16. MadScientist says:

    “… the consequences down the line of not bailing out these giant banks would have left the entire world economy in tatters.”

    Or so the masters like to tell us. Bailing them out perpetuates the status quo of overpaid incompetent people pushing veiled pyramid schemes.

  17. John Greg says:

    … demand for a product creates jobs.

    A strange thing for the King of Computerville to say.

    In a world where product is produced more and more by machines and computers, and less and less by physical bodies on the floor, that strikes me as a rather empty statement.

    • Max says:

      Warren Buffett’s carpet manufacturer, Shaw Industries, employs 30,000 people, and Microsoft employs 93,000.

      • John Greg says:

        Sure Max, that’s fine, but that’s only two companies of how many in the world?

        Yes, certainly there are companies producing product for which an increase in demand would require additional employees. But there are also companies producing product for which an increase in demand would not require additional employees, but would simply require ramping up computer/mechanical production chains. I have no idea though what the balance is between the two.

      • Michael says:

        So you’re saying that despite your initial statement having little to no basis in fact, you’re still right because Bill Gates doesn’t employ everyone in the world? That makes sense. Thanks for clearing that up for us.

      • John Greg says:

        “… despite your initial statement having little to no basis in fact….”

        Huh? What planet do you live on? Or is it that you cannot read?

    • MadScientist says:

      The mechanization is essential to meet the manufacturing demands. There are simply not enough skilled people to do everything nor can they work as fast and as reliably as many modern machines do. A buddy of mine has been looking for welders and machinists for over 3 years now and has no such luck – so he’s buying another computer controlled machine and a welding robot and will automate even more of his production work. This guy was so keen on finding people to do work that he was interviewing people in other countries and was prepared to pay to relocate them and their families – and still no luck.

  18. Chris Howard says:

    This is really very simple. If Mega-Rich CEO’s want me, and everyone else, to buy his/her products, then they need to pay their employees enough to afford said products. This was the case in the 50’s, when CEO pay was significantly less, and employees were paid significantly more (cost of living adjusted, and all that). BTW Government entitlement programs were at an all time high in the 50’s.
    “Value” is often an arbitrary judgement call, and should not enter into the picture when discussing a living wage. But since the U.S, and all other capitalist economies/societies are stratified by design, value always enters into the mix, mainly as a rationale to deny a large portion of the population a decent standard of living.
    So, Bill Gates bitching poetic about people, in essence, not buying enough is more of a sign of his being out of touch with the rest of the population than anything else. I’d really love to buy a new Windows 7 system, or iPad, but darn if I have just enough to pay child support, rent and all my bills… nothing left over.
    Clue time, much of the U.S., and in fact, most of the world lives in poverty, and buying more crap isn’t going to alleviate that poverty. In other words, we can barely afford to survive, because we aren’t being paid enough, and we’re in hock up to our eyeballs. Why? Because the average CEO, in the U.S., makes several hundred times that of their lowest paid employee. It’s a complete sham, too. Randomness probably has more to do with a companies success or failure than a CEO’s decision making abilities. A companies fortunes are often, more directly tied to the work of their employees, who again are paid significantly less, even though what they do for said company is probably significantly more important to the success or failure of that company.
    Bill, if you want to pay me more so that I may afford your wares, and thus stimulate your economy, be my guest. But until you are worried about where your next meal will be coming from, or have to make a suckers choice, with regard to paying for medication or your electric bill, then I’d caution you to keep your mouth shut on matters which you clearly know nothing about.

    • Tuffgong says:

      Boo we’re all poor and the big names like Bill Gates are all rich and I’m supposed to feel angry about that?

      You sound like my brother who always talking about rich CEO’s and how Americans are pigs (essentially). I’ll never get over how cynical some people can be.

  19. Sam Nettles says:

    Should have asked Bill Gates if he thought it was fair for the taxpayers to pay for all the space operations that have made computers, cable TV,etc. possible while the government has farmed out the commercial interests to its chosen controllers so one has to buy a multitude of gimmicks just to use the product. When we bought radios, we got all the signals possible because the airways belonged to everybody. Broadcasters were paid by advertisers. Computers, TV and other signal requiring products should be the same. Consumers are paying twice.

    • MadScientist says:

      I’m not sure what you mean about computers (though I do my best to use Free systems and avoid Microsoft products). I remember when Pay TV was introduced – I stopped watching TV altogether not long after that. One of the promises was fewer ads – but I hear you get to pay for the ads these days. Must be damned good ads. I also remember when promotional items used to be given away – like T-shirts with logos on ‘em – now you pay through the nose for the privilege of being a walking billboard – I think that’s just dumb.

  20. Bill Morgan says:

    Wow, Michael do some research. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have close ties to the Wall Street Banksters. Buffet and the Rothschild Bankers in London are close friends and often dine together. Gates and the Rockefellers are close friends and attend meetings together like the Bilderberg Group, Trilateral Commission and Council on Foreign Relations. Gee, I wonder if that’s why he says we must have the Federal Reserve Bank and must bail out the corrupt bankers?? This is not rocket science, Michael.

  21. slingword says:

    I have been listening to Gates for 25 years, and fail to ever hear anything impressive.

    And I’ve followed Shermer for a while too, and he does impress me.

    And Shermer says Gates is brilliant. What a dilemma for me!

    But let’s be very clear on one issue. Microsoft has a monopoly, and is not the result of brilliant leadership in the business world. They are the result of a terrible blunder by IBM.
    Since then, they have developed an operating system inferior to most, and in general, it creates fear when a new one is forced upon us.

    And what products do they have which are superior to others? A web browser? Hardly, Firefox is better in almost all ways, and is free, unfortunately, it is not bundled with microsoft monopolistic products.
    How about emailers? Again, no where near as good as Thunderbird.
    Office software? Again, Openoffice.org does everything Office does, and is free.

    Microsoft success is the result of a monopoly, and their other products are successful solely because of that monopoly, not Gate’s smarts.

    I’ll be impressed with Gates when micosoft starts putting out products that are superior to the competition, and stops using their monopoly to cram other products down unknowing consumer’s throats.

    Micheal: Perhaps you being impressed by him is because of his money, or his position, or because he can talk up a storm. He sure the hell isn’t delivering products consumers need…..

    • Andy Fraser says:

      I read the comments to see if something like what slingword wrote appeared. If it hadn’t, I would have written it myself. From the beginning, Microsoft has been technologically weak and imitative. Consequently, I’ve been skeptical of Gates ability to understand technology. I thought his talent was in exploiting market failures, and that he didn’t understand that was his strength.

      I have been impressed with his philanthropy. After reading this article, my estimate of his intelligence and charm have changed. Both the mean and variance of my estimate are up.

    • MadScientist says:

      Oh, give the MS marketers some credit. They successfully pushed their product in the early days; no one else seemed interested in providing an affordable operating system for the IBM PCs and other PCs of the day had their own proprietary systems (Apple, Tandy, Commodore, etc). There was SCO Unix, but as far as price went it was not competitive. So MSDOS was the status quo on IBM PCs and later the IBM PC clones. It would be very many years yet before a variant of BSD UNIX would run on Intel x86 family hardware and MSWin would be well established by then. Today you can get variants of BSD and of course Linux for free, but many people have this bizarre attitude that it musn’t be worth anything if you don’t have to pay – that and the fact that they don’t want to spend a little time learning something new – so much so that they’re rather fork out hundreds of $$$ than save money by using free products.

      MS also shine in engaging in anticompetitive practices and getting away with it. At the moment they’re running a moderately successful racket disguised as cross-licensing agreements. They employ typical monopolistic practices when dealing with Original Equipment Manufacturers. They use scare tactics and secretly negotiated anticompetitive pricing to discourage corporations from using free software. They use illegitimate schemes to stack voting entities in their favor and to push their own alleged ‘standard’ specifications which do not actually meet the standard organization’s requirements of a standard specification.

      Now despite being a monopoly and unlawfully using its monopoly position to maintain the status quo (and getting away with it), MS do produce products which people want. You may argue that people who know better would not want their products, but you can’t say that people do not genuinely want their products.

  22. Joe Nieters says:

    “…Gates’ answer: “Apocalypse.” He then expanded on that, explaining that after talking to his “good friend Warren” (Buffet), he came to the conclusion that the consequences down the line of not bailing out these giant banks would have left the entire world economy in tatters.”

    And that means exactly what?

  23. 2 Years ago I had the privilege of sitting with Bill Gates at a brunch. At the time, South Florida was undergoing a drought. I asked him what he thought about the water shortage. He answered that there was no water shortage for human consumption. He went on to explain the various water reserves in the US and how the water in Florida was used to grow sugarcane and that if we ceased growing that crop there would be more water than we could use. He also remarked on the cost of raising sugarcane in the US vs. the Dominican Republic. Evidently there was enough difference between the costs to produce sugarcane in the US including subsidies AND the cost to produce sugarcane in the DR to still pay the companies in Florida a subsidy for not producing sugarcane. And then he added the fact that this would “solve” S. Florida’s water problem, fix the economy in the DR thereby slowing some immigration issues AND allow us to repair the damaged water table in the Everglades.

    That was the last question that I asked.

    • MadScientist says:

      Shh – don’t ask what people mean – you don’t want people to think you’re a skeptic. do you?

    • Seth Manapio says:

      Why would that be the last question you asked? If the man knows everything about everything, wouldn’t the sane response, the skeptical response, be to ask him more questions?

      Seriously, I’m baffled. Huffington, Shermer, you… you decide he’s right, and you’re wrong, and your response is to stop asking questions?

  24. TryUsingLogic says:

    All the great free programs you talk about exist because Gates changed the world with his innovations through the free market which made personal computers affordable! You should be happy to have the best of all worlds….cheap conputers and free software!

    People should be impressed by Bill Gates because of all his accomplishments and charity. America…gotta love it!

    Remember one thing about superior products…..Toyota was thought to be the clear leader in quality….and now?….. a better bet is Ford!

    A small group of people rave over Apple…..95% of users have PC’s.

    Pretty impressive stats for Bill!

    • Max says:

      I bet the majority of TED attendees use a Mac ’cause they’re so hip.

    • slingword says:

      Bah humbug!

      Gates did not give us PCs! What history are you looking at?

      IBM gave me the PC, not Gates!

      Gates got a sweet deal and delivered poor products then, now, and in the future.

      He has done nothing for the PC industry other than to retard it.

    • Bill Morgan says:

      Google Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Rockeffers, Rothschilds and connect the dots. Gates and Buffet are closely tied to the Wall Street Bankers who control the Federal Reserve Bank. So of course they will say we must leave the Federal Reserve alone and we must bail out the Bankers. Buffet holds billions in stock in Goldman Sachs. They are protecting their financial intersts and care less about the working man who pays taxes.

      • Tuffgong says:

        I keep getting the impression that I need to start handing out tin hats whenever people seem to rant. In none of these comments save a few have I found actual reason and skepticism. Instead it’s just cynicism and biting insult either toward Gates or Shermer.

    • dcm says:

      If you took all the money that is now spent/lost due to malware thriving on Bill’s OS and used it for humanitarian purposes, we wouldn’t need Bill’s munificence now.
      His intelligence was used to his benefit, not the world’s, and I don’t believe that current philanthropy makes up for past mistakes.

    • MadScientist says:

      Affordable PCs were the result of successful litigation against IBM and the growth of genuine competition in the PC space; you cannot credit MS for cheap PCs – but MS (in the late 1980s) did help enforce some much needed uniformity in the hardware – then again, even without MS various manufacturers would likely have banded together in support of certain standards anyway because that would reduce their own production and research costs. It is interesting that Apple managed to maintain exclusive production of Macs and prevent the success of clones; I guess no one saw a large enough profit in hauling Apple to court to enforce their right to competition.

  25. Rick Bishop says:

    What you, like most casual computer users do not see is what makes economic and business world communications possible. It’s not whether or not “I” like a specific consumer product or whether or not “I” believe there are better user-facing products available, but what is there that I don’t see: the technology that makes interconnectivity possible. The server operating systems, the database software, the router and bridge and vpn; the .NET, .aspx, VB, C#, and many other programming languages available; all working together to create the technology you don’t see. Not all of it is Microsoft, but MS does provide a stable base for the infrastructure.
    Can parts of our technology be replaced with non-MS products? Yes. Can all of it be replaced with the hundreds of other products and still all work together? No.

    • Thomas says:

      >> but MS does provide a stable base for the infrastructure

      As stable as a two legged chair. Whats with standards compliance? Why do I have to write an extra stylesheet for each website just for IE. Why has my mother still problems opening my .odt documents. Why couldnt I watch the olympics on silver light on my linux PC. Why did the London stock exchange crash and replaced windows. Why do my friends bother me all the times with their F**** windows problems, those on linux I can help in 30min and its rare, those on windows it takes me 2 or 3 hours most of the time for a new installation. How much money wasted by businesses just on the little problems mentioned above ends up in the guts of a monopolist just to feed us more of their crap?
      IMO a society would be better off not to trust microsoft to care about their infrastructure. M$ have their own agenda. I think if a country would forbid proprietary software they would adapt rather quickly and would be better off afterwards.

    • Seth Manapio says:

      Server Operating Systems: Unix and Linux are dominant in this space for serious web enterprises. So MS server could disappear tomorrow and the network would stay up. Router software, switches, etc… not MS. Cell towers? Not MS. HTML, CSS, RSS, etc? Not MS.

      Basically, the mission critical stuff is not MS. The standards that make it all work are not MS. The software that works with any system at all is not MS. If MS disappeared, there would actually be a net increase in the ability of stuff to work together well, because a major proprietary player would be off the scene and open standards compatible software could take over the space that MS is currently choking up with it’s exclusionary toolkit.

  26. J. Gravelle says:

    Irrespective of what Bill’s pal Warren might claim, reviving the economy with “federal dollars” is akin to giving yourself a blood transfusion by running an intravenous tube from your right arm to your left.

    And a leaky tube at that…

    • MadScientist says:

      Not quite, because the government borrows money internationally to do this; in principle it should have a short-term negative effect on the value of the currency. It does become a huge problem if the money does not result in sufficient genuine growth, but economic theory and past experience say it is not necessarily a bad thing. Now the bailouts – from a capitalist point of view that is a very bad thing (from every competitor’s point of view that is, the recipients will undobtedly see it as a good thing). From older economic theory it is a very bad thing. Even Keynes would likely have said it’s a bad thing (except of course if he were still alive he may have changed his ideas significantly by now). BUT – according to the hip new Wall Street economists – you know, the guys who gave us this mess – the bailout is just oozing with goodness.

    • vince says:

      With all due respect J. Gravelle, not quite. I think your metaphor is more appropriate to someone opening a new credit card account to pay off another. Using federal dollars responsibly can (and should) give the populous something of value like for example, the Hoover Dam.

  27. suezz says:

    should of asked gates about the h1b visa program and why people who work and slave to build companies are not being outsourced to offshore companies who make half the pay.

    this is the problem with the US. greed and it isn’t good.

    these ceos would not be where they are today if it was not for the folks who they are not using the economy as an excuse to offshore the work at half the price.

    my company makes their employees train their offshore replacements all in the guise to help out with the extra work and then when the knowledge is transferred the people who trained the offshore company get letters and the boot. hence our 10 percent unemployment rate.

    I would love to hear what billy has to say about that. And believe me he does not care about the world he only cares about feeding is junk software (which he did not invent he just copied) to the third world. you should of asked him why brazil was given the choice of either having the government use junk microsoft software and get wonderful donations from his foundation or not getting any donations and going with Linux. They went with linux. that is how wonderful billy gates is.

    Ron Paul also has more intelligence in his little pinky than gates will ever achieve. at least he is a doctor and actually helps cure people and has served as a flight surgeon in the air force. a hell of lot more than what bill gates has done.

  28. FreeBooteR says:

    I would have handed him a GNU/Linux live CD. Then left of course. Can’t stand monopolists.

    Banker bailout was the biggest robbery in history, well should say ‘is’ because it is still ongoing.

    What’s with all the sheep anyway? Orbiting Gates like little sattelites, i almost barfed. Some people have no self respect.

  29. Jeff says:

    I would have killed to be at that table! Being in a room full of brilliant people, whether you agree with everything they say or not, is definitely a peak experience. I’m still walking on air from getting into Beyond Belief 1 and 2, and only regret I was not more serious about staying connected with the people there (except for the Templetons at BB1 – yechh).

    I’m not crazy about Windows either, being a programmer who is forced to work with it every day, but Bill Gates is undoubtedly smarter than most of us and has redeemed himself anyway for his efforts in third world health care. Besides, how many people could get Michael to actually have a moment of doubt about Libertarianism?

    It is too bad he didn’t give Ariana a talking to about her anti-vaccination and pro-homeopathy crap, though.

    • MadScientist says:

      “… how many people could get Michael to actually have a moment of doubt about Libertarianism?”

      I don’t see where you get that impression. Libertarians are capitalist and though they hate regulations (most corporations do as well) I’m sure they’ll also be too happy to tale government handouts at the expense of the general population.

  30. tompaine says:

    All,
    Here is a two and a half minute video of a nobel prize winning economist (dead) from a tv show 30 years ago.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RWsx1X8PV_A&feature=related
    What do you think?

    • MadScientist says:

      Thanks – it’s always great to hear Friedman. Of course back then the CEOs weren’t paid 200-500 times as much as the typical employee (OK, not necessarily in cash, but that’s how various tax laws are worked around), but the point of that discussion was whether the capitalist system was better than some other system like communism (given the date, they surely meant “communism” even though they wrote “socialism”, even though Friedman would surely have known the difference).

  31. alba says:

    A few cogent comments, cheapened by drivel from idiots. Hero worship of rich people, hmmm. Not much progress in the last 200 years. Say, Bill, glad you’re trying to save the world, but how about a little help at home? We’ve got a lot of sick, starving folks right here. Oh wait, I forgot about those H1B’s. How’s that working out for ya?

  32. epicurus says:

    I would have asked Bill Gates why his good friend Warren Buffett is not an investor in Microsoft, and if IBM did not use MS as its operating system in 1981, would he still become the world’s richest man?

    My answer to the first – because Buffett thinks MS stock is overpriced. In terms of cash flow, MS would have lower value than its stock price and savvy investors like Buffett would not consider it a good investment. To the second – no, because his success is due more to luck than to genius. There are many geniuses but there’s only one richest man. In business and finance, I think Buffett, Soros, Weill, Jobs, Murdoch, Welch and many others are equally smart, if not smarter than Gates.

  33. purencool says:

    I’m not a windows man myself but it sounds like it would have been a very interesting. I really enjoyed this. I this conversation I noticed that he has a rounded view.

    Thanks for sharing

  34. “libertarian bias”? That’s an oxymoron. ;)

  35. Kenneth Polit says:

    There is no such thing as too big to fail. When Bill and Warren are worried about the gas bill, that would be a “miracle”.

  36. David says:

    Well one thing is you should never ever let a bill gates control the conversation, but if a question was to be asked of him,I think the “ten billion dollar vaccine scam” would be a great place to start, that he donated to. let this western billonaire look you in the face and lie about it..

  37. JustSomeGuy says:

    To everyone complaining about MS and Bill Gates and how terrible he is to computers, the world, and puppies let me give you some perspective in the form of an analogy:

    I don’t know much about computers. I don’t know much about cars. (the change-over begins)

    When I buy a new car it comes with a warranty. That warranty is only valid if I get ALL maintenance done at the dealership which will charge me more then my regular mechanic or 10 minute lube place. It is MUCH more expensive then doing it myself. But…I don’t know how to fix anything. Can’t even change my oil. Fix my brakes HA! Spark plugs…not sure where those are.

    I am left with a problem…to keep my warranty, which I will need because I can’t fix anything myself, I will need to go to the dealership which has a monopoly on my car repair but if I learned how to do most everything myself then I would only need a mechanic for the really big things like replacing the transmision.

    I don’t want to learn how to fix my car. Period! I have no interest, desire, or skill which would make that a viable option. so….I just use microsof….er…the dealership.

    That’s why Gates and Microsoft have succeeded. Because of lazy, uneducated people like me who CAN BE uneducated and lazy and still use the product effectively without knowing what source code is.

    A side note:

    “If you want to create more jobs you need to create more demand for products”

    Isn’t that kind of what the sub-prime home loans did? By subsidizing home loans the government created more demand for housing, etc. etc. but because the demand was artificially created we ended up with that whole mess?

    Like I tell my brother-in-law…Elitism doesn’t “win” against the masses. It just makes you look like a libritaria….er….jack-ass.

  38. ejdalise says:

    Gates might be smart, is definitively rich, and heads a giant corporation . . . precisely why I suspect his perspective on the economy and the role of the feds may not be anchored to a frame of reference reflecting the real world.

    Perhaps he is correct; perhaps we averted an apocalypse by bailing out banks . . . then again, it might be we averted an apocalypse for some banks at the expense of many small businesses, ex-employees, and the general population who are now facing their own apocalypse.

    It’s also not clear to me how much the Fed’s policies were/are responsible for what happened/is-happening with regards to the global economic meltdown (yes, I know; we’re recovering . . . except for the jobs we’ve lost and continue losing, companies who have permanently closed their doors, and the continuing housing and commercial real-estate crisis).

    Of course, from the standpoint of someone with a multi-billion dollar fortune, I doubt whether he would be concerned with details such as those.

  39. Joseph says:

    Your story sounds to me like a bunch of subservient, not very evolved folks gathered around an alpha-male. I wasn’t impressed with Gates’ brilliance by your account, nor by anything else I’ve heard about him. But all of you clearly were. Just goes to show you how deep our animal programming can be…

  40. T. Jackson says:

    Does this mean that the U.S. Works Progress Administration of the 1930s-40s was a big waste of money? It was the US’s largest employer at that time.